SE Colorado: Blown Away!

Remember when your greatest joy as a child was to sit in an enormous pile of sand and play the day away? Well, regardless of your current age, we’ve got the ultimate playground for you! Behold … Great Sand Dunes National Park in southeastern Colorado!

You’ll be BLOWN AWAY by this place — just like the landscape gets BLOWN AWAY every single day! Strong winds and water flows pile the dunes back on themselves, creating beautiful ripples, ridges, and a never-the-same view of the beauty.

Here, sand was created by eroding from mountains, shattering by cycles of freezing and thawing, getting tumbled about by winds and flowing water, then being deposited throughout the area.

The 330-square-mile dunefield is basically a gigantic playground, with few rules, even fewer people, and absolutely no trails. That’s right … every hike is a different hike, as intrepid explorers make their own path up, up and away!

Here, billions of sand grains make up North America’s tallest deposit of sand. Dunes, mountains, creeks, forests, wetlands, ranches and more all co-exist in perfect harmony.

This place is a virtual grab bag of always-changing beauty. Where else do the colors change by the hour or sometimes the minute, depending on the winds, clouds, time of day, moisture content, and angle of viewing?

Bring your toys … all of your toys! From hiking sticks to sleds to sandboards to beach umbrellas to kites, the sole purpose of this park is a place for you to have fun – slipping – sliding – surfing – and SMILING! And regardless of how many people show up, there’s plenty of room for all in these 150,000 acres!

If your fun needs a little Fido, you’ll be glad to know that unlike 95% of National Parks, dogs are also allowed at Great Sands! But whatever you and your companion do — you’ll need to do it early in the day. That’s because although air temps may be cool at this higher elevation, the sand itself can reach 150 degrees by mid-day!

Destination: UP! Climb to impressive heights at the top of the dunes. The highest, most accessible dunes are Star Dune (highest at 755 feet) and First Dune (closest to the campground but “only” 699 feet). That means you’re going three miles straight up — slowly — oh so slowly!

For every beach stroll you’ve ever done in thick sand, multiply that effort x100 and you’ll have every reason to be very proud of yourself of when you reach the top!

Medano Creek originates in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains ringing the park, and runs along the base of the sand dunes, providing a fun respite from the heat and a great post-hike cooldown, especially after the frequent afternoon thunderstorms — when the swelling water carves an always-new path.

During early spring, the water is deep enough to have wave surges! During mid-summer, the trickle (which increases substantially after a rainstorm) is still enough for lounging beside at an afternoon picnic.

Hiking trails also head into the mountains and forests. Where else can you have a “beach day” before walking across the street and retiring to your campsite in the trees … with views like this right outside your camper?

Great Sands National Park, we love you!!!!

(not pictured: big sand penis nearby, that definitely was not our doing)

For another awesome sand playground, you’ve got to experience White Sands National Park in New Mexico! Click to read more.

From being blown away by the effects of blowing sand, we transitioned to being blown away by the efforts of just one man at at Bishop Castle. It’s surely the most unique structure in all of Colorado!

This crazy stone-and-iron fortress has been more than 60 years in the making … and it’s not done yet! It has been billed as “The Largest One-Man Construction Project in the Country.” 

Question: could YOU do this?

Jim Bishop is one determined man. Despite fires, governmental opposition, and many obstacles, this jaw-dropping roadside attraction is definitely a monument to sticking with a project. Like all massive missions, it comes complete with a manifesto.

Bishop purchased two-and-a-half acres of land in 1959 for $450, planning to build a cottage for his family. Somewhere along the way, he got distracted and instead built a castle that even includes a fire-breathing dragon (well, no actual fire, but you get the idea).

Dragons must be a Colorado thing. The other awesome dragon we’ve seen was also in Colorado … in a 4th of July Parade in Steamboat Springs in 2015 … made out of old CD’s!

Three full stories of interior spaces, a grand ballroom and more punctuate this “open construction site” made almost entirely of rocks and steel.

A series of interior steps lead to narrow, steep, stone-ringed spiral staircases. Fear of heights – nope. Claustrophobia – nope. Fear of strangers rubbing up against you – nope. None of these are gonna cut it here. Adding to the unease, most of the steps are simple metal mesh, and lots of them have worn completely through in places. Gulp.

At the top of the two main stone staircases are yet more steel steps, but no longer attached to stone walls — just attached to the step above each step. Rickety ones. Wiggly ones. Scary ones. And the more people there are up there with you, the more the whole things sways, even if you’re trying to avoid it. Signs like this do nothing for your confidence.

At the very top, an Evel Knievel style cage is perched such that you can peacefully gaze at the surroundings. Or, say to yourself “THERE I DID IT” and get the heck outta there ASAP before fear has you frozen in place for the rest of time.

Think you wouldn’t be scared? Think again. Survey this photo of the outside once again, as a reminder of how high you are in the air at this point. UP THERE! In that center dome! With the whole shebang swaying with the slightest breeze! Yep — you’ll be scared. Promise.

The outside of the castle is ringed with fear-inducing catwalks and rickety walkways between tall towers. It’s absolutely unbelievable that no deaths have occurred, no lawyers have gotten involved, no authorities have shut the place down, and no waivers must be signed before climbing 160 feet into the sky.

Fearless, young and intrepid people actually make their way out onto these things. (Lots more do not. Though they clearly want to, frozen statues of people stand nearby, waiting for inspiration and that clammy feeling in their armpits to subside.) Ahhhhhhh!

On the day we visited, the builder, Jim Bishop, was sitting quietly overlooked by virtually everyone passing by, and it seemed he wanted it that way. Though 60 years have passed since he began this journey, and it’s difficult for him to do manual labor anymore, he still enjoys just sitting and watching everyone explore his masterpiece.

Bishop’s son and his trusty dog are grudgingly continuing the never-end work on the place, currently constructing a cover over the castle drawbridge. Admission is always free (though donations are accepted) and it’s open 24 hours a day.

Custom stained glass memorials are embedded into the windows of the grand ballroom. For a $300 tax-deductible donation, local artist Del Paulson will memorialize whatever you like with a completely custom design. It will then be permanently installed at the Castle! You can also hold your wedding here for just $350 (with absolutely nothing included).

You simply cannot deny that Jim Bishop is a real force of nature — and a generous soul to share his creation with everyone who wants to “be king of the castle,” even if just for an hour!

So tell us … were you also blown away by the Great Sand Dunes and Bishop Castle? Add them to your Colorado bucket list … you won’t regret it!

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